The Mormon claim that their founder, Joseph Smith, was a prophet of God rests entirely on their assertion that he was able to translate ancient documents into English by the gift and power of God. If Joseph Smith did not translate the Book of Mormon from a set of ancient plates, for example, then all of Mormonism falls apart. The religion is utterly dependant on the idea that Joseph Smith had a prophetic gift of divine translation. The facts, however, compel us to conclude that he had no such gift.
This can be objectively tested in a variety of ways. The fact that the Book of Mormon plagiarizes the New Testament of the King James Bible, for example, betrays that it is not a translation of the writings of ancient pre-New Testament prophets. Likewise, Joseph Smith's alleged translation of "the book of Abraham" from some Egyptian Papyri has been proven fallacious. But one of Joseph Smith's most easily tested yet often overlooked claims was that he produced a miraculous translation of the Bible! Since no work of ancient literature is so thoroughly studied and the languages (Greek and Hebrew) are very widely known, it is quite easy to check and see if Smith's translation is supernaturally accurate or not. The fact is that Joseph Smith's changes to the Bible have no basis in reality and demonstrate that he did not have the ability to translate ancient texts by any gift or power of God.
One clear example of this is found in 2 Samuel 12:13.
Was David Forgiven?
The book of 2 Samuel contains the well-known account of David and Bathsheba. In short, King David committed adultery with another man's wife then had the man killed to cover his tracks. After this great sin, David was confronted by a prophet named Nathan, wherein David confessed and repented of the evil he had done. How did God respond to David's confession? It is here that Joseph Smith parts ways with other Bibles. The verse traditionally reads:
"And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the Lord. And Nathan said unto David, The Lord also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die," (2 Samuel 12:13, KJV).
However, in the Joseph Smith Translation, a small but significant change literally reverses the meaning:
"And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the Lord. And Nathan said unto David, The Lord also hath not put away thy sin that thou shalt not die," (2 Samuel 12:13, JST)
This cannot be construed as just a matter of wording or of Joseph Smith clarifying the meaning of the verse. These two versions are literally exact opposites of each other. So, did God put away David's sin and spare his life or did He reject David's repentance and put him to death for these evil acts? Was David forgiven or did he die condemned in his sin? Joseph Smith's credibility as a translator depends on it being the latter.
Text and Translation
Unfortunately for Joseph, there is no ambiguity in the Hebrew here, nor is there any variation in the manuscripts. We know just what this verse says and what the Hebrew means. This is why all translators agree here, regardless of their background or religious perspectives. We can look at old English translations from even before the KJV, from the 14-century Wycliffe Bible down to the Geneva, Bishops, or even the Roman Catholic Douay Rheims Bible, and all will agree that God forgave David and spared his life. Some of these translations were by Roman Catholics and others by men the Catholic church had burned. Some were made in opposition to the English crown and others were authorized and printed by the English crown. These translators had no reason whatsoever to agree with one another except that the meaning of the Hebrew is clear here.
We can also look at more recent translations. Whether we look at Protestant versions like the NASB, Roman Catholic Bibles like the NABRE, Jewish translations like the NJPS, or even fringe, cultic versions like the Jehovah's Witnesses NWT, every translator from any background who is actually looking at the Hebrew text comes to the same conclusion as to what this verse says. Whether they rely on traditional manuscripts, as does the NKJV, or turn to the latest scholarship like the ESV, there is no variation here. There is simply no controversy. An accurate translation of the text will tell us that David's sins were forgiven.
What's more, this is not true only of modern translations. Even ancient translations from Hebrew manuscripts that are now long lost tell us that the text said back then exactly what it says now. The ancient Greek Septuagint from before the time of the New Testament, the ancient Aramaic and Syriac versions, the Latin Vulgate, and all others stand in full agreement. This text says, this text has always said, that David received forgiveness.
Yet, we can go a step further. By simply reading the next verse and the rest of the story, it becomes quite clear what verse 13 is supposed to say. Verse 14 is the same, even in the JST. Joseph Smith agreed that the KJV and other translations got that verse right. How does it read?
"Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die," (2 Samuel 12:14, KJV/JST).
This verse helps us because it only makes sense if the traditional reading is correct. If Nathan did not just say that David's sins were put away and that he would not die, there would be no need for a "howbeit" (i.e., "however", "nevertheless"), nor would there be a need to justify the coming death of David's son. Saying "Your sins are not forgiven and you are going to die, HOWEVER your son is going to die" doesn't make any sense. There is no contrast there. But when we read any real translation of the actual text, the flow of thought is clear:
"Then David said to Nathan, 'I have sinned against the Lord.' And Nathan said to David, 'The Lord also has taken away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child that is born to you shall surely die," (2 Samuel 12:14).
Thus, the grammar and flow of thought in the immediate context make it clear that verse 13 must say that David's sins are forgiven and that he will not die, otherwise verse 14 (Which Joseph Smith agreed was correct and on which the rest of the narrative hinges) would no longer make any sense! What's more, if we read on, we clearly see that David did not die prematurely as a punishment for this sin. He lived to an old age and died of natural causes. Unless Joseph Smith is trying to say that David would have been immortal and never died at all were it not for this particular sin, his reading is patently false. David lived on a long time. He was not struck down for this sin, and that is what the language of the JST would imply should have happened. When we read passages elsewhere like:
"The sons of Israel shall not come near the tent of meeting again, or they will bear sin and die," (Numbers 18:22).
The point is not that, if they came near the tent, they would slowly grow old and die of natural causes over the coming decades. That was going to happen anyway! This kind of language occurs all over the Old Testament and denotes a premature death as punishment. David did not receive such a death, thus the JST is patently wrong.
Considering the Psalms
It should also be noted that David's prayer of repentance during this episode was literally inspired by God and preserved for us in the Psalms for God's people to use in prayer in and worship! Psalm 51 is explicitly stated in Scripture to be David's prayer from this very occasion when Nathan confronted him. Thus, if Joseph Smith is to be believed, the Holy Spirit inspired a prayer of repentance through David at this time just so God then reject that prayer and not forgive the sins He had just inspired David to ask forgiveness for, and then God preserved that rejected prayer in the Psalms so that we might...what, exactly? Needlessly pray a prayer God does not accept? The whole thing reduces to nonsense.
Still more, we have another of David's prayers which seems to reinforce his forgiven status before God. Psalm 32 opens with:
"How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, And in whose spirit there is no deceit!" (Psalm 32:1-2).
Then, after describing David's attempts at first to hide his sin, David then identifies himself as the forgiven man, saying:
"I acknowledged my sin to You, And my iniquity I did not hide; I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the Lord'; And You forgave the guilt of my sin," (Psalm 31:5).
In Romans, Paul draws on David as an example through this Psalm and explains that David is talking about God's grace received by faith apart from works:
"just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: 'Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, And whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account,'” (Romans 4:6-8).
Thus, David's psalms make it still more clear to us that David was graciously forgiven by God, and thus that Joseph Smith was wrong.
2 Samuel 12:13 and Mormon Scripture
The correct reading of 2 Samuel 12:13 not only proves that Joseph Smith did not have a God-given gift of translation. It also creates problems for other so-called "revelations" from the Mormon founder. For example, in the collection of Mormon scripture known as the "Doctrine and Covenants," Joseph Smith claimed God to have said:
"And now, behold, I speak unto the church. Thou shalt not kill; and he that kills shall not have forgiveness in this world, nor in the world to come," (D&C 42:18).
According to Smith, a murderer can never have forgiveness. Thus, 2 Samuel 12:13 presented a serious problem. It was not enough to interpret it away. David must not receive any form of forgiveness, not in this age or in the age to come. The text had to be changed. It had to be entirely reversed. And that is just what we find that Joseph did. Yet, interestingly, even Mormon Scripture is not perfectly consistent on this. In the Book of Mormon, we read:
"For behold, if ye deny the Holy Ghost when it once has had place in you, and ye know that ye deny it, behold, this is a sin which is unpardonable; yea, and whosoever murdereth against the light and knowledge of God, it is not easy for him to obtain forgiveness; yea, I say unto you, my son, that it is not easy for him to obtain a forgiveness,” (Alma 39:6).
Alma never clarifies what the process is to obtain forgiveness for murder, but it is clearly possible, even if "not easy." Some Mormons try to explain this difference away by saying that the D&C passage is specifically speaking "unto the church" and thus doesn't apply to others, but that doesn't help them out of this dilemma. From the very beginning of the Book of Mormon, "the church" is anachronistically present. In 1 Nephi 4:26, "the church" exists in ancient Israel in the Old Testament era even before the Babylonian exile. The book of Alma refers to "the church" as a present reality throughout. Indeed, Alma 39 is supposed to be a letter in which Alma is warning his son Corianton against these sins, and Alma and Corianton are presented in this section as missionaries of the church! Therefore, these instructions in Alma 39 are no less "unto the church" than D&C 42:18. The "unto the church" clause might plausibly get the Mormon out of other related problems, such as when murder is part of a list of sins for which the "gentiles" are told in 3 Nephi 30:2 that, if they repent, they "may receive a remission of your sins." But the "unto the church" clause does not dodge the conflict between Alma 39:6 and D&C 42:18. Both were written to and for the church.
At any rate, however one tries to explain away the inconsistencies in Smith's own writings, we have no reason to accept any of them as genuine revelations. His claim to have the prophetic gift of translation is demonstrably false, thus he also did not translate the Book of Mormon from ancient plates and he is not a prophet of God.